© Leontien Allemeersch

Openingsspeech Heleen Debeuckelaere

Dancing on the edge

I have no use for quotes today. My father told me a speech always includes a few good quotes, preferably in the beginning to grab everyone’s attention.
But quotes are useless to us now. We’re stepping in to the great unknown together. A place without set knowledge or rules.
Quotes will not ease our discomfort.

I also don’t have any good anecdotes to share. I could tell you about the time I spend here as a kid, about how deeply connected I am to this place.
But it would only serve to legitimize my presence here. Elevated to the point of opening a theater festival. I am not a theater critic, nor am I a distinguished name that could draw in the crowds.
I am just here.

This festival is not a perfect exercise.
There are things in the next couple of days that will blow your mind, things that I love, things that I don’t, things I worry about and things I dislike.
Decolonisation is a lot of things, and is therefore confusing to many. For that reason we even have a whole panel on understanding it better this friday.
It is also not everything. Recently I’ve been seeing it thrown around like a fashion item, to wear and take of when the weather or fashion changes.
Mostly decolonisation is a never ending process.
For now, we don’t know where the end of that process lies, nor what that is supposed to look like.
That is why this festival can never be a perfect exercise. This is why we are in the great unknown together.

This festival is not a safe space.
I really struggled to write this: procrastination got the better of me. I must have cleaned my house five times over, checked my Instagram until there were no new posts to look at. I struggled so much because this is not safe. Even in this context, the start of this festival that celebrates inclusion, we are not safe.
You are not safe
Because I will question your integrity, your points of view
We are not safe
Because this questioning might lead to a bunch of misunderstandings and arguments
I am not safe
Because speaking your truth can damage your well being, your economic prospects, and your security
In this great unknown, safety is impossible

This festival is not uniform
It is a collaboration of many different partners, three major cultural houses and all the individual people that work there.
It also contains a multitude of artists.
In this context no uniform truth can be pushed foreword as an ideal to be achieved.
That means that you will not find objectivity here
Together we represent all different points of view, all these different ways of being in this world.
I only hold one truth above all else: someone that claims to speak a truth above every other truth must be lying.
Even in my approach to this project I wavered. I hesitated whether or not to do this in the first place.
A small organization like Black speaks Back in this huge project:
Will we be used in some way to claim inclusion? Probably.
Will it be hard working with so many, and such deeply white institutions? Most definitely.
Will you be pushed foreword as a spokesperson because people perceive you as an activist and that’s somewhat cool now until they have to do it themselves? I’m speaking to you right now, am I not.
I also questioned the way we go about these things.
I’m here as an outsider, I’m here only by the grace of the people who asked me to collaborate.
Many artists who are performing here are in that same situation. That can be a positive thing, I realize that, but it also means that this is a precarious thing, or a one off, never to be repeated or to really impact the institutions we worked with.
Maybe, it is even strange to centralize a non-white perspective in the context of theater. How far are we from exoticizing ourselves?
Do we then become a Saartje Baartman of our own creation?
Representation without any true power is dangerous.
So no, there is no objective truth to be found, no set definitions, no uniform language.

No quotes, no anecdotes, no perfection, no safety and no truth
That’s a happy picture you’re painting there Heleen

People have told me time and time again that I shouldn’t be so angry, so polarizing, so negative without solutions. I always find it hard to listen.
This time, however, I have found some positive ways to experience this festival. Full of beautiful if sometimes painful art.
I’m proposing a guideline of emotions and attitudes that can help us through this great unknown

First, I put forth “Vulnerability”

I always liked the term vulnerability. Not in the sense of ‘a woman is vulnerable’ or to dismiss someone else’s experience as them being too fragile.
But instead being able to be vulnerable as you would be vulnerable to a new lover. Not knowing if they will be kind or if they will rip your hart out.
Vulnerable like when you know something bad is about to happen. We reach out, to our nearest and dearest and hope that they can save us.
This is the way we need to reach out to each other now

Surrendering to your own lack of knowledge

I have been known to fake my knowledge level about a certain subject by being a, generally, pretty good talker. When the mood is right I can even try to argue subjects like the physics theory of everything without batting an eye.
That strategy can be useful at times: when you need to prove something, when there is money on the line, when you just want to feel like people think you are smart.
But we have no use for this now
Abandon al blanket statements
Abandon your tendency to argue the opposite perspective when someone is trying to be vulnerable with you
No reverse racism is not a thing, No your position in this art world is not in jeopardy because this festival has invited many artists of color
But do accept that you don’t, and can never, know everything. Otherwise there would not be anything left to learn in this world. And that would be incredibly boring.
There is knowledge to find here, we’ve made sure of that. There are plays and performances, music to enjoy. There are books and wordlists to read, video’s to watch.
Mostly, there are people around you that will speak, and it is up to you to decide whether or not you really want to listen to them.
When you accept your lack of knowledge, don’t impose that on someone else. It is not because someone does not have a PH’d after their name that they might not know things that you could never assume of knowing.
The concept of knowledge is a colonized one. We tend to accept things more readily when they come in a certain form, whether that be a book, a lecture, the loudest voice in a room or just generally a cis gender white man.
That brings me to my last guideline

Embrace subjectivity

When all objectivity is lost, al we can do is accept that the subject, you, the person standing next to you, the people on and of the stage, the people who work here, the people in the audience
bring together all their subjective knowledge. That pot of intersubjectivity we have to stir and brew, and we will hope something can come out of that which will lead us forward.

So this is al I have to throw in to that pot for now. This festival will throw a lot more in it. And though I have started this speech in a more negative way, this is a positive situation. We are dancing on the edge of the volcano, looking into the abyss of what is ahead and wondering how we got here.
We are not safe but we are holding on tight to each other, we are vulnerable, we are listening and last, but not least, we are dancing.

by Heleen Debeuckelaere (Black speaks Back)